It isn’t easy to sell people on science. For some, it’s too controversial. For many others, it’s too complex. Yet, good storytellers have found a way to make topics like physics, astronomy and even neurobiology cool with mainstream audiences. Thanks to The Big Bang Theory, every theorist from Schrodinger to Stephen Hawking has become a household name. But, that’s a comedy. How do you sell a dramatized biopic about the most famous physicist of the 20th century to a modern audience? Sex, of course.
In the weeks prior to the premiere of National Geographic’s first dramatized series, Genius, about the life of Albert Einstein, a slew of articles popped up focusing on the scientist’s sexual proclivities. It was rather an ingenious (pardon the pun) way to market science to a modern audience. By using Einstein’s many romances to thread together a complex narrative of scientific thought and intense history (after all, he did do the bulk of his work in the midst of two world wars and the Holocaust), the show’s producers have made relativity’s king intensely relatable.
But, Einstein’s romanticism doesn’t begin and end in the bedroom. Unlike most men of his generation, he is depicted as a soft-hearted Renaissance man who pursues his intellectual interests like lovers. Tight scriptwriting contrasts scenes of him professing his love for his secretary with impassioned lectures about the science of light waves delivered to eager students. Contrary to the portrayals of nerdy, emotionally stunted scientists in popular shows like Big Bang and Scorpion, Genius’s Einstein exudes the kind of emotion normally reserved in our culture for figures like Shakespeare or Braveheart.
This twist should inspire some serious discussion about how men, specifically intelligent men, are portrayed in the media. Much has been made of the pressures put on boys to stuff their emotions in order to appear more masculine. Still more has been made of pushing girls into scientific professions, often at the expense of boys’ academic growth in the classroom. In the midst of this milieu arrives Einstein as a historical example of a man who can be both incredibly intellectual and deeply in touch with his emotional side. It’s a refreshing change of which parents should take note.
Genius shouldn’t be lost on the spiritual crowd, either. Unlike the black-and-white thread of discussion often dividing contemporary scientists and people of faith, Genius highlights the many ways Einstein’s work respects the relationship between science and God. While he was not particularly religious, Einstein did espouse a strong belief that science bears evidence of the existence of God. And in response to a question regarding atheism he once wrote, “I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.” Theories discussed, especially the Theory of Relativity, should inspire discussions about the eternal, not quench them.
Produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the guys behind modern epics like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, Genius is a strongly casted, well-written adaptation of the biopic Einstein: His Life and Universe authored by Walter Isaacson. It’s the first scripted show NatGeo has pursued in an attempt to re-brand its image, following the lead of several other cable networks producing successful scripted series. The network put so much faith in the project that it greenlit a second series before the first even premiered. (The show will feature a different genius in the next go-round.) While some fans believe the show will inspire a new generation of scientists, actual scientists remain skeptical. A review in ScienceNews rather amusingly disapproved of the series opener beginning “with a murder followed by a sex scene.” Perhaps the series will inspire another generation of storytellers as well.